Mathematician comes to defence of TikTok teen blasted for saying math isn’t real

October 1, 2020
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A high school student who was relentlessly mocked online for questioning the nature and origin of math was actually making “profound” and important queries, says mathematician Eugenia Cheng.

“They are exactly the kinds of questions that drive mathematicians to do research,” Cheng, a Chicago mathematician, educator, and author, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

“And so, in a way, she’s thinking more like a mathematician than the people who think they’re good at math.”

Gracie Cunningham, 16, opens her now-viral TikTok video with, “I was just doing my makeup for work, and I just wanted to tell you guys about how I don’t think math is real.”

She continues, “And I know that, like, it’s real because we all, like, learned it in school or whatever. But who came up with this concept?”

The video was posted to Twitter, where it exploded in popularity, and Cunningham faced an onslaught of comments from people insulting her intelligence.

“It’s definitely been crazy,” Cunningham told As It Happens in a Twitter direct message. “Having a bunch of people you don’t know attacking you is really overwhelming and honestly scary.”

But there was also a backlash to the backlash. Cheng, along with other experts in the fields of physics, mathematics, and education, came to the teenager’s defence.

“I heard someone who was posing really valid, curious questions, and I really sympathized with her because those are questions that are important to mathematics, but they’re typically not addressed in normal math education,” Cheng said.

“And moreover, they’re exactly the kinds of questions that cause some people to feel superior and tell others that they are stupid for asking those questions. And that makes me upset.”

In followup video, Cunningham asks a numbered list of questions, including: “How did people know what they were looking for when they first started theorizing about formulas?” and “Once they did find these formulas, how did they know that they were right?”

Cheng decided to take a go at sating Cunningham’s curiosity, answering her questions one by one in a public document.

“I really wanted to validate her questions as profound questions that are difficult to answer in research mathematics,” she said.

It’s part of a broader picture of people, especially men, wanting to call younger women stupid, and wanting to put themselves in a position of superiority over them. And I don’t like that.– Eugenia Cheng, mathematician 

Cheng says Cunningham’s story is emblematic of a much bigger and deeper problem — people, especially young women, being driven from the field.

“It’s a very universal experience that many people, unfortunately, are put off math by having their questions belittled and by feeling that people are being derogatory towards them and making them feel stupid and it makes them want to go and do something else,” she said.

“But also, it’s part of a broader picture of people, especially men, wanting to call younger women stupid, and wanting to put themselves in a position of superiority over them. And I don’t like that. I think it’s unfair. And I think that it is something that is exclusionary of young women who have valuable contributions to make.”

The limits of standardized testing

Cheng says it’s hard for people to grasp math the way it’s taught in most schools.

Some of the earliest mathematicians, she says, were trying to answer questions about the world around them based on their real-life experiences. That practical application gets lost in the classroom setting.

But she doesn’t blame teachers.

“Often their hands are really tied by the system that has been imposed on them and the kinds of structures where they are asked to put people through ridiculous standardized tests and then they themselves get rated on how well their students do in these really pointless standardized tests,” she said.

“Plus, the questions that children and teenagers can ask about math may sound naive, but they’re really deep and extremely difficult to answer.”

Those, she says, are her favourite kind of questions.

“If a student asked me a question I can’t answer, I think that’s fantastic.”

Cheng says she’s received feedback from all sorts of people about her exchange with Cunningham.

“I was really overwhelmed by how many adults, male and female, wrote to me to say that they were crying from reading my responses because they felt such a deep level of validation for all the trauma they went through when they were a child, where they were asking those questions, and they were told that they were stupid questions,” she said.

“And this really touched me and galvanized me because I really believe we need to do education better. If that is the result of what we’re doing in education, we’re really not doing it right.”

As for Cunningham, she says she appreciates Cheng and other experts who came to her defence and engaged meaningfully with her questions.

“It’s actually really cool and I think it’s a good example of how people are so quick to jump on people before considering that maybe they’re the ones in the wrong,” Cunningham said.

Still, asked how the scientific responses have shaped her understanding and feelings about math, she said: “I still hate algebra.”

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